This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 10, 2015.
Chase Magnett: After Planetary #12 establishes how the series will proceed for its second half, Planetary #13 takes a pause to look back at the origins of Elijah Snow and The Planetary Guide. This is no standard origin story though. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday are treating this much like any other issue of Planetary. It examines a specific aspect of popular storytelling, utilizing familiar elements and combining them with an explorer interested in uncovering their secrets. This story just happens to be entirely set almost a century before the present timeline.
Snow is only 20 years old here and he has not yet founded Planetary. He is just beginning his journey and is uncovering what has come before, specifically the “Open Conspiracy” of 19th Century literary figures. While we only meet two members of this group, Ellis and Cassaday allude to many more in an expansive set of references that might remind some readers of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Their focus is entirely focused on European literature from the time, but it runs the gamut from horror (Frankenstein and Dracula) to mystery (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) to science fiction (The Invisible Man and H.G. Wells, himself). These are the most obvious figures in the story, but many more references are buried in dialogue and backgrounds.
The point of Planetary #13 seems to be that there is a generational shift occurring between these literary figures and whatever comes next. After Snow kicks off Dracula’s lap, Holmes laments that he is “not certain whether the association will survive his demise.” While Holmes survives this encounter and becomes a mentor to Snow, it is made clear that even he has only five years left to live. The titanic figures that populate this issue are all dead or dying. Their powerful conspiracy is dissolving and leaving the way open for groups like Planetary and the Four to lead the way.
This transition between the old and the new seems to be primarily focused on media, rather than genre. Horror, mystery, and science fiction can all be found in the previous Planetary stories we’ve explored. Yet the characters, movements, and tropes in those stories rarely connect to literature, much less originate from the written word. The closest any come is the exploration of pulp heroes rooted in the dime novel in Planetary #1, another issue focused on the transition between the old and the new. Most of what this series has explored in the 20th Century though is based in film, television, and comics, all new media.
That leads me to my question for you, Ray. What does this division between the 19th and 20th Century, between old and new media signify? What do Ellis and Cassaday want to say about the centennial shift they seem so fixated on both in Planetary #13 and in the character of Elijah Snow?
Ray Sonne: With Ellis and Cassaday’s exploration of film, 1980s Vertigo comics, early 20th century pulp novels, and other media, it was only a matter of time before they visited 19th century literature where most of the previous genres have their roots. The 19th century still has many indelible marks on Western pop culture. In general, the invention of the modern novel (by Jane Austen in 1808’s Pride and Prejudice), but more specific to Planetary #13, the bringing to popular culture the myth of the vampire (Dracula remains the most enduring example, although, contrary to widespread belief, he was far from the first vampire) and the creation of the detective story (by Edgar Allan Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue).
Planetary, created at the birth of the 21st century, is a series looking back on the 20th century and thus we eventually had to return to the beginning. As established previously, and reestablished in Planetary #13 in the panel where Cassaday blends Elijah into the snowy landscape behind him, Elijah represents the century as a Century baby. Unlike the remnants of Holmes and Dracula, who sink into the romantic darkness from whence they came, he belongs in this world.
Of course, such an evolution of literature and overall media doesn’t come so abruptly at midnight of any centennial new year, but Ellis and Cassaday seem to be enjoying the envisioning of passing the torch. Ellis emphasizes this in the dialogue between Snow and Holmes and there, I feel, we see the strongest example of the two centuries’ dichotomy in their literature. “You sound like someone who still goes to the lavatory in the woods, young man,” Holmes responds to Snow’s thick, American accent. For the most part, 19th century prose is stringently proper and uninterested in realism. It luxuriates not in plot or pacing or even too much distinctive character development, but in words and images and symbolism. In contrast, Planetary #13 takes place in 1920, two years after World War I ended and a time of great cultural shift. Writers, perhaps influenced by Freudian thought and continuing the 19th century line of renouncing religion and its black and white morality in favor of scientific rationale, paid much more attention to themes and characters that reflected the world they lived in. Such characters might have accents and imperfect speech like Elijah Snow.
That stated, Sherlock Holmes marks a perfect line between the 19th and 20th centuries because he existed in both. “This second life of mine has not been fulfilling,” he tells Elijah. He is referring to his 1893 death in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem.”* 8 years later, in 1901, Doyle brought the character back due to harassment inflicted upon him by his character’s fans. Stoker’s Dracula came in around the same cusp with its publication in 1897.
The crux of Planetary #13 is framed within what Elijah says to Holmes early on in their meeting, “But this is a new century, sir. Different rules […] I don’t do things like you and I don’t see things the way you did.” Like 1950s monster movies and 1980s punk rock magic wielders, the time of the 19th century has passed. Planetary #13 is, however, a homage if you will of everything from the 1800s that influences our 21st century ideas. Holmes is Elijah’s most important teacher because the detective genre is one of the literary inventions that we still happily carry with us.
That being said, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen began publication around the same time as Planetary in 1999. Chase, do you think the two creative teams shared similar interests in returning to 19th century literature and what do you make of the different works they chose to tie into their individual stories?
Magnett: This feels like the sort of topic that we could write an entire essay on, especially considering that bothPlanetary and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are two of my favorite works of the 20th Century, but I will try to keep it relatively brief. I think that League (specifically the first two volumes) and Planetary #13 share one major similarity and one major difference.
The similarity that you touched upon quite a bit in your response is the inevitability of change as witnessed through the turning of the century. Both comics are fascinated by the Victorian era and its proper writing and style giving way to a more wild and adventurous 20th Century. Whether it comes in the form of technological advances, great strides in feminism (notice how none of the Open Conspiracy are women), or America’s increasing influence, 1900 makes for a great dividing line when painted in broad strokes. Change is inevitable and is embraced in both works. Neither is afraid of killing significant characters (Hyde and Moriarty in League and Dracula and Holmes inPlanetary #13) nor are they tempted to romanticize the past too much. There is a lot of ugliness in these comics. Even the heroes of the League are shown to be rapists, slavers, and murderers. Meanwhile, Ellis and Cassaday include both Holmes and Wells in a horrific conspiracy endorsing such atrocious concepts as eugenics. Yet I believeLeague of Extraordinary Gentlemen brings far more detail and love to the past than Planetary #13, and there lies the key difference.
Moore and O’Neill adore 19th Century literature. Every page of League is loaded with details and allusions that I can barely scratch the surface of. It is a very dense book once you start to dig into the imagery, and that’s because it is far more interested in the past than Planetary. Planetary #13 includes some great references to classic characters, but in more than 20 pages it includes maybe as many connections to this era of literature as two pages of League. Only two characters from the past are even shown. Dracula is shown to be the greatest villain of the period. He is the “master strategist” that would launch not only a specific monster, but an entire genre into the next century. Holmes on the other hand is the ultimate hero, one who is flawed yet timeless. These two characters have only seen their popularity grow, while others like the Invisible Man have abated greatly. Their selection is based on their enduring popularity, spawning countless retellings and spin-offs even in the 21st Century.
Yet the focus of Planetary #13 is not on Dracula or Holmes, it is placed squarely on Elijah Snow. He fills the first half of the issue with his adventures in Frankenstein’s abandoned castle before even encountering the dissolving remains of the Open Conspiracy. This is not the story of what the 19th Century meant, but what the 20th would come to mean. Snow is not just the future, but the inevitable eclipse of even these great legends. That brings me to my question framed for someone who truly appreciates and enjoys literature from this seemingly eclipsed era. Do you agree that Ellis and Cassaday are focusing on the 20th Century descendants of 19th Century fiction as a more significant force? And do you agree that this vague boundary between centuries does make one greater than the other?
Sonne: I wouldn’t say that this issue is necessarily presenting one era as greater than the other. The characterization of Elijah here is rather roughshod in comparison to the previous Planetary issues, even in the earlier installments where he had no memory of himself. In the beginning of Planetary #13, he shows some self-deprecation (“I’ve done dumber things than this”) and by the end, he allows that he eventually did learn quite a lot from Holmes (“To his disgust, I never lost the accent in his lifetime. It took another ten years of walking across the world to do that”).
That being said, young Elijah has his own charm. Sure, he’s rude, he’s crass, and he’s reckless, but he’s just the version of those descriptives that we, as 20th century born brats, tend to admire. He also carries an adventurous personality that is only seen in the science fiction alluded to in this issue. In Elijah’s short lifetime of 20 years, there has already been a lot of motion that bound the Western nations closer together and he wants to explore the entire globe. Holmes, meanwhile, generally stayed inside his home country of England in Doyle’s novels and that was pretty typical of characters in most British novels of that time period, including Dracula. The xenophobia/racism in Dracula toward Eastern Europeans is laughably horrible. Other classics from the era, such asJane Eyre, had a British superiority complex when they didn’t contain blatant prejudice toward foreigners. Traveling outside of Britain seemed a terrifying prospect for many people at the time and was only a thing you did if you were desperate to get away from something even more terrifying.
Elijah is also American, which brings in some of its own implications. It’s not just that people in Western civilization got out of their countries finally in the 20th century, it’s that Americans finally earned enough money to get out of their country in the 20th century** and along with that, the American literary scene exploded. In Planetary #13, we see an American encroaching on what was previously English territory and taking over its legacy. This is apropos to American writers seeing international renown that they never saw previously. Britain still had Virginia Woolf, who was no slouch, and E.M. Forster in the early 20th century, but Americans had quantity in talent, including Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound.
So in asking the question “is 20th century literature better than the 19th century literature?” in the context ofPlanetary, you are in a lot of ways also asking “is the American literary tradition better than the British?” In Planetary #13, a comic made by an English writer and an American artist, I think we have a nice middle-ground of an answer. Holmes and Snow have their own styles of strength and even as time goes on, they represent figures that the English-speaking world will be eternally fond.
- The fictional occult detective Thomas Carnacki is implied to be part of the 19th Century conspiracy as well. The book Elijah Snow lifts from the shelf is titled “The Sigsand Manuscript”, an ancient text used by Carnacki in his adventures.
- When Snow says “Strange world. And prob’ly ‘bout to get a whole lot stranger.” it’s the earliest version of this oft repeated phrase in Planetary. It also serves as a jumping off point as Ellis and Cassaday move from the foundations of genre literature into the many concepts they have already and have yet to explore.
- The very first panel revealing Castle Frankenstein shows a jagged path leading to the dilapidated building that very much resembles a lightning bolt. There is both lightning above and below the castle in this way, making electricity its defining feature.
- The 19th century is where the first recorded instances of what we now recognize as “fandom” occurred (in particular, literary/media fandom, not sports fandom). Scholars disagree on where the first usage of the modern definition of “fan” came from, but they generally agree that it has its origins in the 19th century. The comics fandom of today has a lot in common with the literary fandoms of the 19th century, particularly in how they hold sway over publishers in who works on their favorite titles and what happens to their favorite characters, very much like how Sherlock Holmes’ fans pushed a reluctant Doyle into reviving the detective. Another notable fandom is the Charles Dickens fandom, who would run up and down the docks as new installments of his stories came in, yelling for spoilers. They had the self-restraint of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans on twitter the first day a new TV show or movie is released.
- Americans were the rudest tourists when more of them first got the ability to travel in the very early 1900s. If you ever wondered the source of the loud, obnoxious American tourist stereotype, blame your loud and obnoxious great-grandparents for ruining your reputation.
- In one panel, Elijah’s narrative textbox says, “I heard about this place from a man who went to Mars.” This is possibly an allusion to Edgar Rice Borroughs’s serialized science fiction novel, A Princess of Mars, which was first published in 1912. Elijah’s timeline as presented in this issue seems to suggest that his curiosity is born from works that were created in his lifetime rather than beforehand.
- “Whoever built this place must’ve been one o’ them absinthe fellas I heard about.” Absinthe first rose to popularity among French artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was known as a hallucinogenic drink. Elijah’s implying that only someone high on absinthe hallucinations would conceive of the creepy building this issue is set in.